By Greg Masters
- Black Beauty: Live at Fillmore West
- (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65138), April 1970
- Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at Fillmore East
- (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65139), June 17-20, 1970
- (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65135), 1969-70
- Miles Davis in Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall
- (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65140), September 1972
- Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall
- (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65137), March 1974
Copyright © 1997, Greg Masters
The musical events Miles Davis created during his so-called electric period (1969-75), are acts of constant exploring and constant willingness to push into the unknown, daring to always look forward and to not rely on any conventions or any of the safety nets of the past. The music is rebellious in its uncompromising intensity and is uncategorizable for its urgent flooding past genre definitions. It flaunts recording conventions with tunes and passages merging into suites inappropriately lasting longer than an LP side. Miles' music of this five year period is unlike any music that preceded it, and still, thirty years later, so original, so progressive, and so inadequately described.
It's no wonder that with his transformation into an electric experimenter, Miles lost a huge share of that loyal audience who'd been following his earlier career. This new electric music dares to shed a 'jazz' sound to integrate the highly charged, youthful raw power from rock and funk. Ignoring barriers, this music refuses to stay in any 'proper' place. Besides being multi-culti, it makes perhaps an even bigger transgression: it's often unpleasant, assaultive, harsh, combative, macho, eerie, and seemingly formless. If you come expecting a transcendent version of "My Funny Valentine" you're going to be let down. Just as Miles' entire career is a continuous progression of remaking and replenishing himself, he's moved on and left his old self in the past decade.
This music is not useful as background music. It can't be used in the same way the 30 years' worth of Miles' previous music can be used. It demands attentiveness. It's militant and arrogant. It's ferocious. It's unsettling. It's sometimes more a display of audacity and an assertion of absolute independence than a lovely palette to summon dreams. Miles is making it clear that the dream is over. All the romantic ballads and pleasurable entertainment is history. With this sound he describes a new reality for which he invents a new musical vocabulary. He can't waste time making things pretty and acceptable anymore. The urgency expressed is not pretty in a community standards form of understanding, but it does contain aspects of pretty, lush, pleasant, and soothing. It's just the context for all these elements has been radically altered, with elements of ugly, atonal, and brutal added to the array of emotions.
This music is on fire, crackling with effervescence and affirmation. It may not always be successful as public artistic expression, but it generates all sorts of emotions previously reined in and socialized. As a body of music, this period seems to unleash forces of liberation and to present decades of pent-up fury. This isn't posturing entertainment, this is artistry of the highest order with no concession for the audience's expectations or for presenting what the audience might be comfortable with. Despite the ignorant criticism of the time that Miles was selling out to the big-selling rock market, this music is realer than real had ever been. You can question this mutant symbiotic merging of musical forms as a matter of taste, but you can't question the integrity of its attempt at opening new emotive ground for exploration, declaration, and celebration.
Long out of print or available only as expensive CD imports from Japan, the records of this prolific and fertile period of Miles' career has, for 20 years, been the least accessible and the least examined. Columbia/Legacy has now given us the opportunity of reassessing and catching up with this period of musical evolution by issuing five double-CD sets of Miles' music from this era, mainly live. The sets are beautifully packaged with a much improved design from other recent Miles box-set re-issues. Photo spreads add to the aura by illustrating the substantial visual drama of these musical events. Touching and appreciative liner notes by musicians who played in the bands or are close to the music add to the package of sensual and intellectual pleasure.
On the earliest of the dates, Black Beauty [Fillmore West, April 1970] and At Fillmore [East, June 1970], Miles leads the band through much of the material that had recently been recorded in the studio as Bitches Brew. These live interpretations stretch out with their cracked appropriation of the dance groove of James Brown and Sly Stone (an effect that first shows up to more dramatic success on 1969's In a Silent Way), sounding more jagged and lacking the bounce and palette of subtle coloration of the studio versions. Seemingly out to show something to this new younger crowd, Miles' playing on open horn is powerful and masculine. He puts everything he has into his long solo essays, opening his soul to lengthy and thorough examination. The sound and timbre of Chick Corea's electric piano is jarring and unpleasant, but his playing is a revelation. His percussive, rococo embellishments, his eager chord sequences that reconfigure vamps into startling voicings and his solo runs pull the group into new directions, toward a conception freer than before. The sound is still within the orbit of a chordal structure, but is less indebted to the traditional faith in harmony and melody.
Live-Evil captures Miles live at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. and in the studio from 1969 to 1970 with an assortment of musicians. This record may be the most cohesive and comprehensible of the five new packages, if it doesn't quite attain some of the intense fire grooves of the other sets. In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall is another step in Miles' continuing evolution. By this point jazz-based musicians have all been replaced with musicians who've come out of funk and the group sound is more focused to a driving groove. The simple, repeated bass patterns of Michael Henderson (former bassist for Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder), anchor the churning, molten electric tumbleweed. His subtle shifts commandeer the ensemble into new phases of musical explication. Miles plays a lot of muted and melancholic trumpet over the aggregate's African tribal chant-like music, which becomes incantation and meditation on deep recesses of the human spirit. On Dark Magus all the effects, all the power and energy, all the starts and stops, still serve to create what Miles has always created: moods, atmospheres, feelings. In this case, they're among twentieth century music's darkest and most extreme .
Out of the quagmire of activity on all these sets, one comes away remembering fragments. Tunes and heads echo long after listening. The ebullient affirmations punctuate the dailyness you walk through. The brooding sadness that Miles' playing investigates is not often expressed, grasped or willingly embraced. It succeeds in evoking, of illustrating, of attuning us to deeper layers of emotion than many of us are accustomed to and, certainly, never heard expressed before in such a vulnerable and, at the same time, proud and effusive manner.
Not to appear ungrateful to Columbia/Legacy for the gift of these treasures, but among the devotees of this music is a swelling call for unedited versions of this material, an unfurling of the splices and edits made by producer-collaborator Teo Macero. The post-production editing served his client Miles well by sensibly featuring his presence but, at the same time, excised many solos of the other band members and sliced away development segments. In short, we'd like to hear for ourselves the tooling around Teo argues he's sparing us from. Each of these cuts, each instance of Miles on stage or in the studio, is repeatedly analyzed, studied, and discussed by at least the one Miles LISTSERV to which I belong and there's strong feeling that the release of the full, complete performances is essential. What we get on the Fillmore East set, for example, is what must be half of each of the four night's performances, edited down to fit the original LP format. For a future reissue, it would be terrific if Columbia restored the entire sets and gives us a four-CD package. We also need the complete live sets (with John McLaughlin) excerpted on Live-Evil. These moment are important enough in Miles' progression and the music of these nights is deserving of reaching the public. And the considerable legions of Miles fanatics are willing to shell out the money.
Greg Masters is a writer and editor who lives in NYC. He runs a music-listening series, Miles Monday, at the Knitting Factory the first Monday of every month.
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